I love Libba bay. I want to put that out there. I loved Going Bovine, and when I was about 13, it was probably my most read and reread book. Beauty Queens, by her, sucks. Oh man. Oh boy. I used to just be lukewarm, but I’ve been seeing it float around on LGBT recommendation lists and on tumblr, so I want to officially clear the air: Don’t read this book.
Is there a lot of diversity, female friendship, gay stuff, ethnicity stuff, and feminism? Does the cover rock? Is the premise gold? Well, sure. But that doesn’t make up for everything else.
Look, I like campy over-the-top humor as much as anyone, and I absolutely loved how it all meshed in Going Bovine. But this fails in that regard by taking itself a little too seriously. You can mesh politics, social issues and comedy, sure. But this is not the way.
Premise: A bunch of Beauty Queens going to a pageant survive a plane crash and get stuck on an island. They survive and learn things about themselves, others, society, I guess. It’s a goddamn good setup for humor, survival, and a general fun time. Spoilers: despite this, it fails. There’s a short summary of my long thoughts at the bottom.
It’s tragically unfunny, which is a shame- in Going Bovine, one of my favorite jokes was in the dedication. I don’t know what went wrong here. Nothing worked, sans perhaps the footnotes, because I have some sort of bizarre humor-related fetish for footnotes. But seriously. This book only finds its humor when it makes fun of itself- which happens once, by the way, when a couple never name but always present characters discuss the matter of their existence.
What was up with that, by the way? There are a ton of characters in the story (some die, but we start with 50 girls from the states, with a main cast of about 14), yet we get a strangely unknowable amount of never-named characters. One has a tray in her head. The rest are unremarkable and evidently unimportant. For a book that works to include female solidarity, tray-head (called that in the book) has been failed by the system. It’s odd to give some joke characters no existence at all, but then give others entire narrative arcs.
Not like the main characters were anything to wonderful. Adlina (the main-ish character) was downright the worst character. She’s preachy, arrogant, unfunny, and several times requires the modifier ‘snarked’ to indicate her snarking. Isn’t the point of snarking/sarcasm that we can tell it’s happening without being informed? And I don’t feel like I’m committing a felony against feminism or whatever by saying this. Adlina is downright terrible, and never ends up redeeming herself, which I thought would happen at some point.
She exists to tell the other girls that they are WRONG for how they view things, and that she alone Carries The Light Burden of Feminism. Some of the other gals are much better role models and icons for feminism, but Adlina seems to exist despite this, and never is told she is/was wrong about how she acted. I am confounded by her.
Good characters though: Taylor was fun the entire time, through everything, even if I felt her resolution was weak. She had plenty of potential though. Petra had her interests in the realm of standard LGBT characters, but I mostly appreciated whenever she got to just relax and have fun. She was really quite cool, and a lot of fun. Sosie ended up being a darling as well. It’s hard to find nice deaf representation in fiction, so she’s great in that aspect, but I really did enjoy her conflicts with Jennifer, and the fact they weren’t just ‘needed lesbian couple, that box ticked’.
I liked Tiara, through her everything, but it was weird how she and Britanni got ~two lines, less than some of the unnamed characters, but was evidently still… important? In the conclusion, they are treated like people who have been here the whole time, and who I should care about. Both of them are just dumb valley girl stereotypes, who do not change and barely speak, yet somehow a tier above poor tray-head.
The characterization was uncomfortably forced, however. The same tread repeated itself: We get about two sections for each main girl where they explain everything about themselves, and then those same facts are carried on and repeated a ton.
Imagine this: “Michelle had a hard life, and was bullied.” says a chapter starter. We see some of this. It is directly relevant to the current events, and we see a scene about this. A few chapters later- “michelle being bullied was rough”. After this, something happens to give the impression Michelle has now changed.
But without the very specifically placed flashbacks, it wouldn’t feel like that at all, actually. A narrative should exist where the backstory doesn’t have to be perfectly timed to matter quite like that. Does that make sense?
What I mean is, if chapter one had told us Michelle was bullied, and that was all we got about her backstory, that should be reflected the entire time though. The growth section shouldn’t have to be highlighted with a flashback just to rub in that something is different now.
Oh, what next! Those pirates. And the eco-warrior dude. Uh. Neither were at all needed, and just exist as a weird, off thing. They just felt shoe’d in and unimportant. This book is like a hapless white abyss with little story, a lot of flashbacks, and a very hammered in sense of ‘look! Look how we have changed! and let me explicitly tell you how we’ve changed, too, in case you haven’t noticed!’
(Talking about the pirates/eco dude: I laughed a lot when Sinjihn (what was his name again??) was described as having ‘sexy’ and ‘beast’ on his knuckled. PLEASE take a moment- draw your hands into fists and examine your knuckles. I’m fairly certain you’re going to have an awkward time fitting ‘beast’ on four knuckles (unless you break your pinky or something). I think the boys only existed for sex, which there is quite a lot of. It’s weird and vague sex, with very few descriptions and bizarre prose. It makes me uncomfortable.)
There’s a very strange campiness at play. Much of the character stuff is about serious things, like relationship drama, sex, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia- but then there’s a powerpoint slide to shut down a volcano lab, an actual piranha tank, eco-pirates ( I cannot stress how uncomfortable unwelcome those dudes were in the story), and an evil corporation that runs america and is headed by a woman named Ladybird Hope. How can you expect me to take anything serious when everything else is ridiculous?
Does that above make it sound appealing? Eh. I just want to really hammer it in that it isn’t. It could’ve been, but it so isn’t.
To speak of the actual writing style of this book, it’s bad. Descriptions were non-existent. I live for clean dialogue and streamlined stories, but this was beyond empty. There was a lot of talk about knowing how to make things and designing things, but we really never got to see them. In one short chapter, the girls renovate the island with homemade technology and huts. This would’ve been a great chapter/scene. A makeover montage! There’s talk about fun designs, and if My Side of the Mountain taught me anything, it’s that I like homes made out of the wilderness.
But we basically learn nothing about them. It’s just something that happens, quite early on, to get ‘that question’ (how are the girls living w/o food, water) out of the way.
Most of the story is following a large, diverse cast. They wander around an island. Anything fun (exploring, learning to survive) is glossed over to make room for forced growth, excess flashbacks, and some general chit-chat. Pirates show up partway through for no apparent reason. The plot does not appear to be building towards anything, and is not interesting/funny enough to justify this.
And then the end is cliché, of course, too.
Diversity matters to me immensely, but too often I see books (specifically this one) being lauded too high just for having it. It’s rare to find many types of representation, but maybe I’m spoiled: it will never matter to me more than a good story. And while I suppose there is nothing strictly bad/problematic about any of the representation in this book… aim higher.
-It really figures the one northerner girl is the stuck up and ‘smart’ one (referring to Adina). She is pretty typical for a new hampshirite though. Really disappointed all other northerners that evidently perished, like poor Ms. VT, who I am sure wouldn’t have sucked so much.
-This concept could have been so so so much better.
-The excessive amount of language, sex, and confusion of this book has rekindled hope that I too, may publish something mainstream.
-Everything about it seemed fit for me. but it wasn’t worth it. It’s not even worth reading to laugh at.
Short short summary of thoughts,
1. it’s badly written, lacking in many details
2. not very funny, mostly over the top and honestly stupid
3. no character development, instead we are given snapshots of their lives before the story twice, and this serves as it
4. MC is extremely irritating feminist liberal type, like those are ideas I like but she is beyond annoying and honestly super rude and putting down to the other girls
5. again like 0 detail. one scene, which would have been fun to read about, is when they convert the island their living on after shipwreck into a home! they build huts, set up a system to survive…. and we see NONE of it. just told it happens. NO DETAILS. NOTHING.
6. the diversity is… good? yes? there’s a trans girl (tho her character is mostly about this), there’s a lesbian, another (maybe bi I forget?) who she dates for a bit but they don’t work out. as well as like two or three non white characters.
but it’s… diversity doesn’t write a good book for you.
it’s good, it should be there, but it alone doesn’t make something worth it